Predators & Pray: What Can We Do About Church Shootings?

When preventative measures fail, being caught without the means to defend yourself, even in a house of worship, is a mistake you might only get to make once.

When preventative measures fail, being caught without the means to defend
yourself, even in a house of worship, is a mistake you might only get to make once.

» ON JUNE 17, 2015, one criminal’s lone-wolf attack on a prayer service in South Carolina became the latest killing spree to attract headlines — and fundraising pleas from gun control advocates. Although disturbed journals of the suspect were found, detailing how alone the man felt in his prejudice, the attacks were still hailed not only as emblematic of systemic racism but a springboard to demand tighter restrictions on the guns in your home. Almost automatically, politicians began musing that new laws could stop future violence. Of course, since South Carolina churches are gun-free zones by law (pending clergy exemption) and since the suspect was not legally permitted to purchase, own or carry a gun, it requires intense imagination to suppose added laws would have deterred him. Every mass shooting sparks discussions of what went wrong and how to further secure target locations — in this case, churches. Spree killings can (and do) happen anywhere, but records indicate church shootings are on the rise.

Mass murders always leave difficult questions in their wake, but we as gun owners shouldn’t try to avoid those questions.

In May 2015, a Connecticut pastor setting up Memorial Day flags outside his Nazarene church was wounded in a drive-by shooting. In 2008, a Maryville, Illinois, pastor was gunned down in the middle of his sermon, with witnesses reporting the man unsuccessfully tried to use his Bible as a shield from the gunfire. In 2012, a Wisconsin Sikh temple fell under siege from a lone gunman, who killed six and wounded four. Two Catholic priests were shot in a Phoenix parish in 2014. A 2008 Universalist church shooting left two dead and seven wounded, while a 2007 Missouri church shooting left a pastor and two deacons dead. In 2006, a Louisiana service was halted when five people were shot, four fatally, before the shooter abducted and murdered his wife.

In February, officials announced the arrest of Khalil Abu-Rayyan, an Islamic State sympathizer in Dearborn, Michigan, who intended to target an unidentified Detroit megachurch for mass murder.

“It’s easy, and a lot of people go there,” the complaint quotes Abu-Rayyan. “Plus people are not allowed to carry guns in church.”

The circumstances surrounding each were different, but the lessons are the same: Murderers have no respect for the church, and it takes more than a Bible to stop a bullet.

Mass murders always leave difficult questions in their wake, but we as gun owners shouldn’t try to avoid those questions. Although ensuing discussions inevitably assume a political bent, it’s our humanity — not politics — that obligates us to reject further obstruction of lawfully armed resistance. After all, history is indisputable on two points: Rapid mass murders occur almost exclusively in gun-free zones and increasing access to lawful self-defense can increase the odds of surviving them.

In July 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also hosted a summit in Detroit with officials from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss threat reduction, action plans and protection of congregations.

On an individual level, houses of worship are still grappling with how to respond. Large churches often hire security firms or off-duty police officers. Some recruit volunteers, and many have raised awareness — and eyebrows — by hosting concealed carry classes for members. Certain gun shops have offered discounts and classes specifically for clergy, such as one Louisiana firm that, after the Charleston shootings, hosted a class exclusively for area ministers and their wives. Some ministers go on to carry from the pulpit or incorporate self-defense into their messages.

“We’re not in Mayberry anymore,” one Catholic priest said in a lengthy statement to his Ann Arbor, Michigan, parish regarding organized concealed carry classes. (Unfortunately, the Diocese bishop superseded the priest and forced the class to cancel.)

Some churches even went as far as a Kentucky church that hosted “Bring Your Gun to Church” day in 2009 or a Dallas area megachurch that invited congregants to carry openly. Others host gun “buy-backs” or candlelight vigils to encourage non-violence.

Bottom line: The church is in on the debate, whether they like it or not.

The federal government has recognized the problem and has issued a report on “Developing High-Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship.” Although the report noted that 16 of 41 active shooter incidents studied were ended by potential victims before police arrived, fighting back is advised only if flight or hiding is not possible. (They suggest using such weapons as “fire extinguishers or chairs.”)

In July 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also hosted a summit in Detroit with officials from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss threat reduction, action plans and protection of congregations. Among recommendations, officials encourage holding drills, analyzing and preventing potential threats and planning evacuation routes. In February, the FBI hosted more than 160 faith leaders in Dallas to address the unique threats faced by church leaders.

A would-be robber in Baytown, Texas, kicked down a church door, not expecting to find the well-armed Pastor Benny Holmes inside. Holmes shot the intruder.

Concealed carry isn’t automatically an option. Certain states prohibit worshipping while armed, and even some shooting enthusiasts hesitate to carry in church, uncertain of conflicts with doctrinal orthodoxy. Many civilized congregants are incredulous that anyone would ever need a gun in church.

Retired-lieutenant-turned-minister Lawrence Adams knows better. He routinely wears a concealed pistol beneath his robes. In 2009, he responded to an alarm in his Detroit church and was confronted and attacked by an intruder. Drawing on his police training, Adams pulled a concealed firearm and opened fire.

Last July, an armed church employee in Boulder, Colorado, intervened when a drunken man attacked his estranged wife in a church parking lot. As the man stabbed the woman and began strangling her, the employee displayed a firearm and sent the man running. Local sheriff Joe Pelle told reporters many church-goers had begun carrying in response to church threats.

Also in July, a would-be robber in Baytown, Texas, kicked down a church door, not expecting to find the well-armed Pastor Benny Holmes inside. Fearing for his life, Holmes shot the intruder. (Less than a year earlier, Pastor Holmes had apprehended a serial thief at gunpoint at his home.)

Stories such as these provide a cold reality check on the fearful whispers of gun control advocates who claim guns “only make things worse.” Indeed, guns aren’t the solution to every problem, but they are a solution to some problems, and that includes rapid mass murders.

An intruder armed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition and smoke grenades entered the megachurch and opened fire. He was confronted and killed by [a] former law enforcement officer.

Charleston’s high body count last year dominated headlines, but 200 miles and three years away, another church avoided a similar situation thanks to concealed carry. In March 2012, a convicted felon entered a small Baptist church in South Carolina and pointed a loaded shotgun at the congregation. Parishioner Aaron Guyton drew his concealed handgun and held the intruder at gunpoint, working with the pastor and others to disarm and subdue him. No shots were fired and authorities praised Guyton for his actions.

“I hope the bad guys are watching, because we are tired of your nonsense,” Sheriff Chuck Wright told reporters. “People are simply protecting their families. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen.”

Aurora, Colorado, is still famous for its theater murders, but 20 miles and two months away, a convicted felon crashed into an Aurora church parking lot and opened fire on the crowd, killing one. The man was promptly shot dead by the victim’s nephew, an off-duty police officer.

Then there’s the New Life Church in Colorado. Just 50 miles from the notorious Columbine High School in Littleton, an intruder armed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition and smoke grenades entered the megachurch and opened fire. He was confronted and killed by former law enforcement officer Jeanne Assam, who was acting as volunteer security for the day. (Although the media and even Assam herself continue to define her role as law enforcement, her legal capacity that day was as a private citizen.)

Each must act according to the dictates of their conscience, but there’s no clear-cut argument that any major world religion demands absolute pacifism.

Why don’t armed citizens stop mass shootings? Because they stopped them before they became mass shootings. Would guns in Charleston have stopped the killer? Thanks to lawmakers, we’ll never know. But one thing is clear: Status quo isn’t the answer.

Naturally, denizens of non-violence will still argue that turning the other cheek takes precedence over protection of the flock. Each must act according to the dictates of their conscience, but there’s no clear-cut argument that any major world religion demands absolute pacifism. For example, most scholars of Hinduism suggest that the non-violent doctrine of ahimsa does not require ignoring threats to life or limb. Islam resoundingly endorses self-defense. Sikhs carry ceremonial weapons called Kirpans to symbolize courage, self-defense and readiness. Hebrew Scriptures include fairly detailed outlines for the use of deadly force.

The Dalai Lama famously wrote, “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” Although personally opposing violence, Mohandas Gandhi condemned laws that disarmed his people from fighting for independence. And Christian scriptures include an account of Jesus telling his disciples to buy swords, as well as descriptions of a Second Coming when enemy combatants will be slain by his sword.

Learn to watch for concerning behaviors. Train for worst-case scenarios.

In early American history, churches were vital to communities, and each settler was expected to do his part to protect the parishioners from attack. Many colonial settlements levied fines against worshipers for coming to church services with defective or absent firearms. Church lawns were often the scene for Sunday afternoon competitions and tournaments to sharpen the skills of colonialists.

For readers interested in beefing up church security, it’s important first to check local laws on church carry. Make sure your church isn’t acting as a daycare or a school. Promote a dialog among the church and clergy. Network with other worshipers to form plans. Periodically volunteer to stand watch outside the service. Greeters and ushers often join services and leave church foyers completely unwatched, allowing open access to would-be perpetrators. Learn to watch for concerning behaviors. Train for worst-case scenarios.

Whatever day and in whatever way, many readers keep the Sabbath. It’s not a question of if but when and where. When preventative measures fail, being caught without the means to defend yourself, even in a house of worship, is a mistake you might only get to make once.